Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Diggin' West Orange

"We're spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it's not great," the governor said. "Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."- Florida Governor Rick Scott

I find it very ironic that I would be invited to a dig by an anthropologist the same week that Florida's governor would take a dig at the anthropology profession. A new friend from my Facebook Old Florida page who teaches Anthropology at local college made the invitation and I leapt at the opportunity.

The archeological dig was in the West Orange County community of Oakland, a small town with a big history dating back to the 1860s. The town was incorporated in 1887 after railroad builder Peter Demens accepted Judge James Speer's offer of 200 acres of land along Lake Apopka in exchange for running the railroad line through Oakland. The town boomed between the 1880s and mid 1890s until a freeze wiped out much of the citrus industry that the town relied upon.

One of the town's most colorful residents was Rose Mather-Smith who moved to Florida from Chicago with her husband Charles Frederic Mather-Smith and took the the town by storm with her colorful social gatherings. She and her husband built the West Orange Country Club in 1911 and the club was the social hub of the area for many years. The guest house for the club, now a private residence located next to the Florida Turnpike, was the site of the dig.

A Mather-Smith social gathering, circa 1930 from the Orange County Regional History Center

The Mather-Smith family of Oakland is all dressed up for a parade at Lake Eola in Orlando circa 1911

From the State Archives of Florida

The road to the dig, directly off SR 50, reminded me of the secret road that the Batmobile would always disappear into in the classic '60s TV show. Unless you looked hard, you would never know to turn there. But the house hidden at the end of that road was a wonder of old Florida, engulfed by ancient Live Oaks, palm trees and native plant species. I got a tour of the site from Jason Wenzel, a PhD candidate at UF who was supervising anthropology students from various Central Florida colleges. He explained that this was a Phase 1 archeological survey where holes 50 cm by 50 cm wide were dug at measured intervals around the property. Descending a meter into the ground, the student volunteers learned about use of the landscape from the dirt by matching it to a color guide. During the time when this property was utilized as guest quarters for the club, trash was dumped in a rubbish heap at the edge of the property. Digging through this trash from the past can yield valuable clues to the location's inhabitants – for instance dietary habits can be learned from bones. The presence of bones from indigenous game would show that the guests may have hunted, or finding bones like lamb and other more expensive meat would show that they were affluent. Particularly of interest to Wenzel was glass samples, as he is studying the relationship between alcohol and tourism in the early 20th century. Florida was haven for moonshiners during the Prohibition era, and finding illicit liquor bottles from that time could be very useful.They also found ceramic shards and nails on the site which can tell a good deal about social status and any structures on the site.

Originally guest quarters for the West Orange Country Club,
the site of the dig is now a private residence.

Suburbia encroaching on Old Florida

I was impressed by the knowledge of the two anthropologists at the site, and encouraged that Florida's early 20th century past is considered worthy of study. The whole group was very youthful and enthusiastic and seemed committed to the scientific manner in which they were exploring Florida's past. Although this site was not yielding great archeological treasures, this was the first dig I'd ever seen up close and it was a treat for me. We talked about the Governor's comments and it would be devastating if this was the last generation we train to dig into our state's cultural history. The Executive Director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network responded to the governor's remarks saying "These studies have not only written Florida history, they provide authentic content to a very important and sustainable heritage tourism and historic preservation industry that brings in over $4 billion per year to Florida’s economy." Hopefully he's speaking in language the Governor can understand.

The gates to the former country club are located
on the opposite side of the turnpike from the dig.
Click here to see other historic buildings in West Orange County.

If you'd like to sign the petition about cuts in education to programs like Anthropology in Florida, click here.

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